The state of 2022 early voting in Minnesota: It’s not 2020

Local elections offices have accepted 49,575 ballots in the first two weeks of early voting and mail voting. By this time in 2020, more than six times as many pre-Election-Day ballots – 336,017 – had been accepted for processing, according to numbers released Friday by the Minnesota secretary of state.

The difference? The COVID-19 pandemic was in its early months and vaccines wouldn’t start rolling out until December 2020. A public and nonprofit campaign to encourage and facilitate mail ballot applications took place that election, efforts that would ultimately lead to 58% of the vote being cast at home or at early voting sites, rather than at the polls on Election Day.

“2020 was quite a year to be in an elections office,” said Lance Pemberton, one of three managers of the Hennepin County mail voting program. 

So far, 2022 is looking like a comparable –  though slightly better –  year for early and mail voting than 2018, the last midterm and governor election in Minnesota. By this time in 2018, 42,552 ballots had been accepted by elections offices. That year, 24.5% of the vote was cast outside of Election Day polling places.

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Year to year comparisons can be inexact because use of alternatives has been growing since the Legislature adopted “no-excuse” absentee voting and the state adopted online registration. Prior to the 2014 election, voters wishing to vote by absentee had to declare that they were traveling or ill and couldn’t vote in person. The number of votes cast by alternative methods grew from 267,464 in 2012 to 678,336 in 2016 and more than 1.9 million in 2020.

Mode of voting by year

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State, compiled by Max Hailperin

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State, compiled by Max Hailperin

Total votes cast this year should be expected to be lower than a presidential election. But anyone who is expecting that early and mail voting will have the same volume or to have the same impact in 2022 as it did in 2020 will be mistaken, elections officials say.

Total accepted ballots by week before Election Day by year

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

In 2020, offices around the state staffed up to mail and receive ballots. Printing budgets increased as well, helped with both an increase in funding from the Legislature and federal government as well as grants from a national nonprofit started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

In Hennepin County, Pemberton said the state’s largest county is showing similar trends as the state. The county, and the cities that operate their own election administration in Hennepin County, have recorded 19,047 ballots so far this election. Of those, 11,125 have been mail ballots, 7,823 have been at early voting centers and 90 have been overseas and military ballots.

By this time in 2020, 126,630 ballots had been accepted. In 2018, the comparable number was 12,541.

“Compared to 2018, we’re looking at higher numbers, but it is on par,” Pemberton said. As far as staffing, the county elections administration knew it wouldn’t need the number of people used in 2020 but did expect to need more than 2018.

“It was a guesstimate,” Pemberton said. “There are some days where we’re really busy and maybe on that day we need more people. But on average we’re pretty much at the right numbers.”

Some cities and townships with fewer than 400 registered voters can opt for all-mail elections. Those jurisdictions do allow voters to submit their ballots at elections offices or use same-day registration there.

Deborah Erickson, the administrative services director of Crow Wing County, attributes the decline in early and mail voting to several factors: the change in pandemic precautions, the fact that 2022 is a midterm rather than a presidential election, and the change to all-mail elections by more voting jurisdictions in 2020 that have reverted to poll voting this election.

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Crow Wing County has 18 precincts that vote exclusively by mail. During 2020, 11 additional precincts used that method but have reverted to offer polling places this year, Erickson said. So far, the county has sent out slightly more than 5,000 ballots, on pace to equal the level of 7,900 in 2018.

In 2020, the county had approximately 24,000 mail votes, with 10,000 being in mail-only precincts, Erickson said. This year, she is seeing about 50 voters a day vote early at the election center. In 2020, it was about 200 a day.

She also noted another factor this year: the effect of a later-than-normal Election Day on snowbirds and hunters.

“This year, election day falls during deer hunting season, which can have an impact for hunters,” she said. “Also, those residents who do travel south for the winter often want to leave by early November so may be gone by Election Day.” Both factors can lead those voters to request absentee ballots who might otherwise vote in person.

The day before the primary, Secretary of State Steve Simon said he expected early voting and mail voting to decline from 2020, an election during which “absentee voting saved the 2020 election.”

“Remember, this was pre-vaccine America,” he said. “There was a lot of fear and anxiety about going out in public places.” Simon said he and his wife voted by mail in 2020 but expects to vote in person this year, as they did at the 2022 primary.

“My gut tells me it’s COVID being in a different place right now,” he said. “We’ll not see as many people vote that way this year.”